Vermin, Victims and Disease

British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers

by Angela Cassidy

Hardcover – 2 Oct 2019, Palgrave Macmillan, 366 pp. Free download at Wiley Online Library



Book Review by Tom Langton

Writing the history of complex things is challenging. The word Vermin is eye-catching, enticing the reader into what is billed as a history of the controversy over whether to cull wild badgers to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in British cattle.

Angela Cassidy is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Stated up front and then restated is that the book is not comprehensive, but merely ‘scratching the surface’. Also, anticipation that it is should be challenged. At the start as a cautionary note there is reference to Prof. John Krebs at Oxford University observing that the subject of badgers and bovine TB is ‘sticky’. Anyone interested in understanding the subject gets drawn in, making it more sticky. Stuck to the heart of it, Krebs should know.

Ambitiously, the author has tried to understand and explain “all sides of the debate, explaining positions for and against badger culling as well as everything in between.” A very high bar indeed. But does it deliver?

This reference book is crammed with citations and examines a few confined areas of a range of the various issues and time periods in depth. It is a history contribution not a whole history and not all of the surface has been scratched. The struggle to gain access to historic records of organisations was, as others who have tried will know, more than difficult in itself. This is an initial caveat on content. It seems many have a limited ability or wish to look back on bTB and badgers. Equally much information is held by individuals who need to be interviewed. Chapters are divided into three Parts.

The first section ‘Contexts’ is background material, and states the intent to look at ‘knowledge controversies’: “everyday scientific practices involve the continued negotiation of uncertainty, personal rivalries and a deep inter-weaving with other social and political processes” powers the text, heightening the readers sense of anticipation:

Chapter 2 starts in the late 1960s, sumarising events around the finding of a bTB infected badger in 1971. It shows how the 1973 the Badgers Act was constructed as much to enable a legal context for government badger management as to put and end to the traditional depravity of badger digging & baiting with dogs.

The second Part ‘Reframing Bovine TB 1960-1995’ begins with a brief mention of the 1975 badger-cattle transmission experiment (the ‘Little’ experiment) that is described in Richard Meyers (reprinted 2016) book, The Fate of The Badger. This is the study upon which the controversial cause and effect of bTB spread by badgers was incorrectly surmised and the  core controversy from which others have grown.  It was around this time, Cassidy finds, that the State Veterinary Service (SVS) began to follow approaches that would later gain the title of ‘policy led evidence’. Not that it was absent in the ‘behind closed doors’ governments of the past. The SVS considered that their internal reporting systems and the advice of their own experts were an adequate standard of evidence on which to impose government policy. The rot was setting in.

Ch 2. also records the hardships of Lord Solly Zuckerman, then President of the Zoological Society of London who in 1979 took on a review of bovine TB and badgers, including badger gassing for the new Thatcher government. Zuckerman, born in South Africa to Jewish Russian emigrants was a primatologist and WW2 government scientist. He worked on nuclear non-proliferation and was also an early environmental science protagonist. A driving force behind establishment of the Institute of Zoology laboratories in 1961 he championed (not surprisingly for a zoo) lab experimentation over applied field study and reported as antagonistic towards field studies and natural history.

Zuckerman was caught out by what might be described, looking back as a couple of bad decisions in the early application of UK wildlife disease epidemiology. Ending in the extraordinary position of his advocacy for gassing of badgers in their setts, which did not find favour & was not implemented. He received opposition from animal welfare and nature conservation science professionals, badger protectionists with whom he rather unwisely publicly clashed and was sent anti-Semitic hate mail. With new evidence from Porton Down that gassing was largely ineffective and cruel, sett gassing was abandoned.

History-wise, the book now skips time and events. Briefly touching on the 1986 Dunnett report, but not the developments in the Republic of Ireland, (from which many British cows and cull policy (in-part) originate), that shed further light on the British Isles badger & bTB controversies.  The book makes only slight reference to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which is a shame as they all add important elements to the British story being told.

Chapter 4 provides brief notes on elements of the development of pest control in Britain and some new insight on Ernest Neal, a school teacher & co-founder of the Mammal Society, and his role in the development of badgers and bovine TB policy from the 1960s.

Continuing from the early 1990s, the origin of the Randomised Badger Control Trials (RBCT 1998-2005) is put down to lobbying of government by both government and non-government ecologists. This, was largely zoologists taking advantage of civil servant preference to engage in more research rather become embroiled (and exposed in a career damaging way) in constraining the powerful livestock industry with more frequent testing and movement controls. There was equally strong opposition to a ‘big un-blinded experiment’ from leading scientists and much of the farming lobby was ambivalent, but the civil servants got their way.

Chapter 5 ‘Protecting the badger’ embraces a broad range of subjects. It tries to capture the ‘nature state’ origins of nature conservation in the UK and gives brief coverage to interactions between conservation and animal welfare bodies from the 1970s. It does this without mentioning the sub-committee activities of Wildlife Link and many of the unilateral actions of its members. It doesn’t explore or engage in this interesting subject. Nor the root causes of damaging competition, confusion and duplication that has hampered, even crippled animal charity NGO activity over the last four decades. Another book for this big topic.

There is a useful but not comprehensive description of some of the early stalwarts in badger protection and political lobbying in the early days. Important contribution of badger advocates Ruth Murray, Jane Ratcliffe and Eunice Overend amongst others is duly recognised.

One interesting point is Eunice Overend’s early proposal that gassing badgers made them sick and prone to disperse more, raising the potential for them to spread bTB in the countryside.  The perturbation effect hypothesis was thus invented by her. Oxford university had a growing interest in badger control by the early 1990s (Swinton et al. 1997) with heavy use of modelling. The hypothesis was an idea that the RBCT would be set up to try to demonstrate, also via modelling.

The third and final Part: ‘Contesting animal health (1996-present)’ gives a rapid account of the RBCT and its findings in under eight pages which is quite an achievement. Beyond basic description it leaves alone the science history or the subsequent ‘use and abuse’ of the data generated and the central controversy of the way in which modelling was applied and then used in policy. It covers briefly the findings of the RBCT researchers/Independent Specialist Group in 2007 and the subsequent clashes between the ISG and the then Chief Scientific Adviser David King whose own group rejected key ISG interpretation.

Chapter 7. ‘Building a Public Controversy’ touches lightly on other politico-veterinary scandals-cum-controversies in countryside epidemiology;‘mad cow disease’ – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), and the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. It looks at the way these were handled (mistakes, controversies and cover ups) alongside Bovine TB by government and scientists. But overall there is relatively brief description of the governmental and political ups and downs of the period 1995-2010 when the bovine tuberculosis epidemic was allowed to return to much of Britain.

Nor does it look at the extent to which the badger/bTB policy failures and controversies have been driven by partisan self-interest and frailties of human nature in both individuals and stakeholder groups, including academics. There is little indication of, or guidance on how experts, politicians and policy makers should best work together to make sustainable policy as had been hoped. Nor a summary of lessons from abroad. The chapter also includes results from a collation of newspaper coverage on badgers and bTB between 1996-2017 showing the media frenzy around 2013 when mass badger culling was authorised.

There is some useful background information on the institutional approaches of bodies such as the RSPCA and The National Trust to the RBCT. But there is all but no detailed information on sabotage of the RBCT, direct action by Stop The Cull and others, actions of the Hunt Saboteurs Association and non-aligned cage spotting and smashing groups, nor the activities of Wounded Badger Patrols, all part of the public reaction to culling.

There is little regarding the several Information Commissioner Tribunals against the intense and unfounded secrecy under which the planning and post-2013 badger culling has been managed by Defra and Natural England (against the advice of the Krebs Group in 1997), frustrating and sometimes flouting access to information rights and disgracing Natural England.

There is little on farmers and farm representatives’ positions and those of the hunting and ‘blood-sport’ supporters, nor of cull companies, the police role, wildlife rescue centres or many other players sucked into the controversy. These may be largely reactive and symptomatic of the knowledge validation problems but there is a lack of examination of the policy matters behind culling and how these relate to what has unfolded in rural areas of much of England since 2013.

In the final Chapter 8 ‘The Badgers Have Moved the Goalposts’ Cassidy makes a decision that drops her into the controversy of whether the underlying science of the RBCT is reliable or not. Why this is done, albeit tentatively is unclear, moving the author from dispassionate observer to one side of the argument seems odd and unnecessary.

However it is arguably understandable as the large and extremely powerful Defra has increasingly engaged Exeter University as a part of its propaganda messaging outlet. Through a lucrative TB Hub contract Exeter University sends out messages promoting government policy science. As Exeter’s role as Defra’s propaganda face grew in 2019 this book was being finalised.

At the same time, Exeter was not very quietly disseminating the headlines of a long delayed and rather manuscript-mauled paper on the genomics (whole genome sequencing) of bovine TB at and around the government study site at Woodchester in Gloucestershire. As a ‘get out of jail’ card to prop up government policy, its complexity backfired when yet another convoluted modelling approach was found to simply confuse ‘contact’ between species (badgers and cattle) as ‘transmission’.

This research is referred to obliquely (top of page 287) and shows the likely influence of the authors peers in separate yet proximate Exeter faculties. This is disappointing given Cassidy’s 2015 paper on the RBCT ‘Big science’ in the field: experimenting with badgers and bovine TB, where the frailties of un-blinded Randomised Control Trials were discussed and a more detached and dispassionate approach taken towards the ‘rhetoric of authoritative science’. Some of the material has been used in the book but it is worth reading separately.

So the author risks joining Krebs in his sticky trap alongside a small crowd of other academics, administrators and others by entering the core knowledge debate – between those who believe the RBCT is a sufficiently definitive piece of science and those who believe it is not. And those in the middle who say there is too much uncertainty to be sure about it and to justify mass badger killing with large scale public funds, to try to prop up intensive farming.

The questionable approach was also made at the start of the book with calling the Godfray Group review a “reasonably balanced overview”. This is blessing of a rather vague and generic internal government review that side-stepped key questions such as: is the lack of ability to distinguish the direct effects of badger culling from other interventions a problem? Dealing with the issue that Supplementary Badger Culling may in theory make bTB worse (see Jenkins et al. 2010) it sent vague messages on further research needs, resulting in new policy on 5th March 2020 heading towards another un-blinded field trial with even ‘longer grass’ to kick the policy into for a decade or so, and for another Parliament to worry about. Not very good at all. In what way was that balanced as opposed to cowering and weak?

In terms of its title, this is not a book of any depth about ‘vermin’ although there are some quite interesting aspects of ‘pest control’ history recorded. Nor is it about the disease process and all that goes with it including the main controversies on disease proliferation and spread. The beef and dairy industry and its change and processes are hardly mentioned. Nor is the process of bTB testing and breakdown, the stresses and strains on farming, commercial attitude and behavior of the veterinary industry and role of market forces. No mention on the moods and motivations of farm ‘Unions’, little documentation of the rise of coherent wildlife epidemiology from the late 1980s at the Institute of Zoology and elsewhere.

There is all but nothing on the large and involved aspects of legal challenge to badger culling since the 1970s and particularly the last fourteen years. It does not cover the incredible campaigning and legal challenge In Wales that led to badger culling being stopped there around ten years or so ago. No details on Ministers and Prime Ministers attitudes and party politics. Key names like Jim Paice and Roy Anderson are dropped in for completeness rather than as the key influencers that they were and where a little scratching might have helped to further unravel new controversies.

As the book ends, the author starts to ask questions that have been at the heart of the main controversy. If the primary controversy of whether the RBCT is reliable is put to one side, the secondary controversy over subsequent modelling is raised and that of whether when cattle disease control measures are not working well enough, are other measures a waste of time anyway?

This is where a book could and perhaps should have started, yet it is one upon which a deep understanding of disease control and the history of the veterinarians involved becomes essential. It is a larger surface to scratch and begin to expose motives and actions of those not mentioned in the book. There are other key players in, what is, after misuse of anti-biotics, one of  Britain’s most notorious long running farm scandals.

Despite the lack of analysis that the book promised, this is a useful broad-brushed documentation of several aspects of badger culling and Bovine TB over the last 50 years or so. It is a corner stone that will help make the job possible for others. It contributes to the administrative history but does not capture the science history enough to enable basic understanding of why and how the controversy has flowed over time.

Much as the subject of bovine TB requires multiple disciplines to unfold its complexities, a history of badgers and bovine TB controversies needs that too. It is needed to get to grips with epistemic rivalry, because a history of knowledge validation requires insight into people doing molecular biology, statistics, pathology and epidemiology. Alongside understanding of livestock farming, legal, environmental and ecological issues that make up the deep well of sticky stuff.

A fuller account of how individuals, charities, academics, government officials, farm representatives and even the royal family play a part, lies beneath the surface that Angela Cassidy has very usefully scratched.


Cassidy, A. 2015. ‘Big science’ in the field: experimenting with badgers and bovine TB, 1995–2015. HPLS 37, 305–325.

Jenkins, H.E., Woodroffe, R. and Donnelly, C.A. 2010. The duration of the effects of repeated widespread badger culling on cattle tuberculosis following the cessation of culling. PLoS One. 10;5(2):e9090. PubMed PMID:20161769.

Meyer, R. 2016. The Fate of The Badger Fore-raven

Swinton, J., Tuyttens, F., Macdonald, D., Nokes, D.J., Cheeseman, C.L. and Clifton-Hadley, R. 1997. Comparison of fertility control and lethal control of bovine tuberculosis in badgers: The impact of perturbation induced transmission. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B-Biological Sciences, 352: 619-631.